Extreme temperatures keep affecting wheat production in Europe

Yet another year, climate change shows its effect more vividly on European summer. Extreme temperatures have devastated corn fields in North Europe, while a combination of droughts and high intensity rains on the Black Sea area have plunged production estimations, with the consequent potential of a price raise.

France, main EU producer, has also been experimenting extreme meteorological situations, which forced analysts to take their production estimations down to 34 million tons, almost 3 million less than last year.

As we follow harvest path to North Germany (second biggest corn producer in the European Union, right behind France), more and more evidence of damage on the crops arise, leading to a reiterative cut on the production forecasts for the EU joint corn output.

“Situation is catastrophic in northern Europe” recently said Andree Defois, president of Strategie Grains, the company of reference regarding grain and oilseed markets in Europe.

The consultancy cut off again few weeks ago its estimation for soft wheat’s harvest in Europe for the year, setting it under the 130 million tons, which is a six year minimum, and Defois confirmed that most likely it will be revised again.

Map of droughts in July 2018, JRC European Drought Observatory

Poland wheat production is also struggling: droughts at the beginning of summer and the effects of the recent heatwave mean that the country’s production may fall over 8%, to a total of 10.7 tons, according to Wojtek Sabarinski, analyst for Sparks Polska.

In the meantime, United Kingdom prays to have it better than its neighbours, has also estimated that this year’s output will be a 5 years low.

The Scandinavian and Baltic regions have not been able to escape this weather craziness either: for instance, Sweden’s production has fallen around a remarkable 40% so far.

European prices have risen over 15% in the last month, reaching its peak price in the last 4 years: 208.5 €/ton, in consonance with an increasing concern worldwide regarding wheat supply.

Thus, the repercussion of European situation it’s going to be noticed all around the globe. Considering that the EU as a collective is the main wheat producer in the world, and that the forecasts for production have fallen for the main four producers (France, Germany, UK and Poland), shortage in supply or a very noticeable increase on prices to readjust equilibrium may be expected.

The implications of this situation are very straight forward: the price rice in such a basic product as wheat will definitely be felt throughout the agro-alimentary sector. While clearly being bad news, both for Europe and for consumers, we can only hope governments take note of the “not-so-gentle” pushes that nature keeps on giving us. Global warming is becoming everyday a more tangible problem, and the longer we take to seriously tackle it the more it will cost us.

Morocco polishes up its energy sector

Just 200 kilometres away from Marrakech, between the sight of Atlas Mountains and the beginning of Sahara desert, Morocco’s greatest effort to introduce renewable energy takes shape.

The project to construct a thermosolar plant called Noor (“light” in Arabic) in Morocco got selected in 2011 as part of an investment package from Desertec, with the main objective of promoting the development of power plants in places where renewable resources were more abundant, such as North Africa, and then being able to provide energy to Europe through the Strait of Gibraltar.

Noor has been developed in different phases. Stage I started in May 2013, with the installation of half million mirrors covering an area of about 450 hectares and an installed capacity of 160MW. It was finally connected to Morocco’s power grid on 2016, and it’s estimated to deliver throughout the year about 370GW. Following stages of the project are expected to be up and running by 2018, according to the head of the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy, Mustapha Bakkoury. When that happens, the total installed capacity will be of 580MW, enough to power over a million homes.

Interestingly enough, Noor planners have decided to combine different ways of energy storage in the different stages of the project. For instance, in Stage I and II, mirrors concentrate sun’s rays onto synthetic oil that runs through pipes, and through the heating of it a water vapour is created and gets a turbine-powered generator going. Stage III, however, will use the solar power plant system: all the mirrors will reflect the sun onto a receiver on this tower, and the heat from them will be passed and stored into molten salts, which experts affirm is a more efficient way of storing solar energy, reaching up to 8 hours of energy storage.

Water use is another of the issues to face in the implementation of a solar plant in the dessert, and again, planners have given different solutions to the different phases: while Stage I started with a wet cooling system, following stages went for a dry cooling one, in order to save water. However, mirrors still need to be cleaned up regularly in order to maintain an efficiency standard in the energy production, and that’s where the most intense use of water will happen.

Morocco has realized the importance of this strategic sector and is determined to make the best out of this comparative advantage. Until recently, the country imported 97% of its energy needs, something absolutely unreasonable when considering that Morocco has one of the world’s largest potential for solar power production, with up to 3,600 hours of sun in the desert. Now, a new trend of investment in renewable energy is dominant: 34% of the country’s electric power production comes from renewable sources, mainly hydro, wind, and solar. Its plan is continue on this path, estimating a generation of 42% from renewables by 2020, and 52% by 2030.

 

 

The implications of their approach to this opportunity are of great importance, not only for their own economy, but for the African continent as a whole. The fact that the country with the closest links to Europe takes the lead and develops diverse energy strategies, thinking on its own energetic needs but also on the European market, can produce drag effects on many other African countries, that potentially could become exporter of power supplies to Europe, as well as amongst themselves. Countries like Ghana, Rwanda and Congo are already investing in solar power projects. It could be the beginning of the new era of clean energy production in Africa, and Morocco is decided to spearhead the change.

The evolution of agriculture: how we lost productivity, efficiency and stability of our fields

Nowadays, the agricultural sector is ruled by the industrial approach: fields are factories guided by the rule of business. Nature does not play the main role anymore.

We expanded our production to places that are really not adapt for growing crops. Every year we lose huge amounts of fertile soil, destroying its capacity both in terms of productivity, efficiency and resilience. That led to a continuous expansion of the farmland with a decreasing productivity, that involves problems of space and food production for the whole planet.

Regarding the loss of resilience of the soil we are simply increasing the use of pesticides. Since 1945, pesticide use has risen 3300 per-cent and is still supposed to increase, given that pests are developing resistance to our new powerful chemicals.

At the same time, due to the loss of fertility and capacity of our soil, we also have to face the problem of productivity (crop losses have increased 20 percent over the same period). In order to do that, we have introduced fertilizers and we are employing an endless quantity of them. That is also absurd considering that we could avoid all these problems  simply living the nature and natural ecosystems play their original role.

Moreover, imposing our artificial knowledge over the original experience of the nature, we are replacing plants with hybrid ones, genetically modified by humans. Because of their hybrid nature these new plants couldn’t pass their genetic traits on the next generation, meaning that every farmer will be supposed to buy hybrid seeds instead of planting seeds from the plants he/she eats. In this way we will progressively lose the wide variety of different species that originally existed, replacing them with an unique – and generally poorer – type.

We switched to a system of farming that mimicked industry, not nature. As a result, the leading force in farming is making profit. Nowadays, we are not growing food to sustain ourselves anymore: we are growing so much food it became a surplus – an export item and a political tool. Food is produced not in the most suitable place but in the country which has the most significant market power, able to produce with the lower cost and in larger quantities. That’s the case of some Italian brands of pasta which used to import wheat from Canada. Passing over the transportation costs and the environmental concerns linked to a so displaced production, what is really surprising here is that Italy has the best weather conditions for the production of wheat but it is still importing it. So, the question is: why does Canada have a so significant market power in the production of wheat? Why, speaking about the agricultural sector, the natural landscape and the weather features of a country are less important than its market position? Isn’t food production supposed to be related to the nature and the surrounding environment more than to scale economies, capital and profit making capacity?

Janine M. Benyus, in her book “Biomimicry – Innovation inspired by nature”, presents two interesting data about the agriculture industry. First of all, because of pesticide residues, agriculture is defined as the number-one polluting industry in U.S.; the biggest concern is about groundwater, contaminated by pesticide and nearly impossible to clean. Recent studies have shown that people who get in touch with these pesticide residues have higher than normal risks of developing illnesses, such as leukaemia, lymphoma and other cancers.

Secondly, mainstream agricultural techniques are currently less efficient than how they used to be in the past. The input-production ratio moved from 1:4 in 1990 to the current value of 1:1,5; even if we are producing much more now than in the past, the efficiency of our production has strongly been impaired by the adopted practices of farming.

That’s only a brief explanation of the problems linked to monocultures and the men’s attitude of imposing themselves on nature. Solutions are available, new ideas are spreading and there is some hope for improvement in the future. Actually, that would also be our unique chance to get over the problem of food production and climate change in general. But, as Janine M. Benyus states in her book, this may be just “the storm before the calm”. The system is not sustainable anymore, not even stable or optimal and we are now in the position to move on and revise the funding principles of our production system.

Gorona Del Viento has the wind on its sails

The Island of El Hierro (Canary Islands, Spain) covered its whole electricity demand between the 25th of January and the 12th of February of this year on a 100% with renewable resources, avoiding the use of pollutant energy sources for over more than 560 hours in 2018, and a total of almost 2.000 hours since it started operating.

This major success comes mainly explained by the positive progress of El Hierro’s first wind and pumped hydro system, La Gorona del Viento, set up on 2014. The basic idea behind the functioning of this power plant is simple: an initial deposit of water is set on an adequate high ground area of the island, and another one is set on lower ground. The water running downwards produces energy, which, together with the input brought by a small wind farm, is used to pump the water up, back to the first deposit, while producing enough surplus to also feed the electricity demand of the island.

 

 

Since the moment it started normally operating, on summer 2015, Gorona del Viento has produced more than 20.250 MWh. Its progress is being remarkable: on the first half-year of performance, its share on the total demand of electricity was 19,2%. 2016 was the first whole year for the power plant, and it reached 40,7% of the total demand. On 2017, the share kept climbing up to 46,5%.

As the president of Gorona del Viento Belén Allende pointed out, one of the keys to explain the continuous improved performance of the plant is the close collaboration with Red Eléctrica de España (REE), the corporation that controls the national electricity grid in Spain and operates the power transmission system. In this regard, REE added that the recent operative updates introduced in the system will keep leading to efficiency improvements.

The positive effects that this initiative has brought and keeps bringing to the island of El Hierro are numerous: most obvious ones are directly connected with its environmental impact. Since Gorona started operating, it has been estimated than the emission of more than 30.000 tonnes of CO2 has been avoided, as well as saving the consumption of a great amount of diesel, which translates in lower energetic dependence, one of Canary’s biggest concerns.

Beyond that, Gorona del Viento has also helped re-launching the brand of El Hierro, promoting it as an environmentally friendly destination for regular tourists, while also becoming an interesting destination for scientific tourism, going from professionals in the energy field, to students, environmental engineers…  Besides, it has helped involving the inhabitants of the island into sustainability and increasing their awareness concerning these topics.

Overall, Gorona del Viento’s progress is slowly taking it from an experiment on how to switch to a 100% renewable energy context to a wider reality, becoming an example not only for the other Canary Islands but to anyone in the world interested on how to effectively perform this transition.

Deforestation in Italy: new regulation and new problems

On the first of December 2017, the Council of Ministers approved the so called Testo Unico Forestale, a Consolidated Act aimed to regulate the forest management  in Italy.

So far, an organic regulation of the sector was missing. The act aims to fill the gap and provide new instruments for the promotion of the Italian forest heritage. The core of the normative – according to the Minister of Agricultural Food and Forestry Policies Maurizio Martina – is to stimulate an active management of the forest, an essential resource both for the protection against hydrological instability and to fight the depopulation of rural areas.

“Moving away from a museum vision of the forest – claims the minister – we aim to a sustainable management, able to safeguard the requirement of the environment and the job opportunities for the communities who live inside the area”.

However, despite the enthusiasm  of the minister and other members of the Government, there are still adverse opinions, who define the act as an “attack to the Italian forest”. Let’s check a bit deeper the reasons of the criticisms.

No proper zoning of the woodland

There is not any clear distinction between areas that have to be conserved and areas for the production of wood. That’s a clear back step even with respect to the legislation of the 1923 (legge Serpieri). According to that law, you cannot eliminate some particular areas, defined as “untouchable”, because of ecological, touristic and cultural reasons. The new legislation does not set any similar disposition and that’s the reason why professor Paolo Maddalena defined the decree unconstitutional and conflicting with some funding principles of our democratic and constitutional system (remember that the 9th article of the Italian Constitution states that the Republic “safeguards natural landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the Nation”).

Moreover, both areas where the forest is spontaneously growing again and areas where intervention of artificial reforestation are going on are not into the definition of forest and, consequently, may be freely eliminated. Those represent 40% of the current Italian woodland area and we have also to remember that the reforestation process required a lot of public resources: loosing those areas would represent a huge loss in terms of both public money and environmental resources.

The possibility of compensation

Another problem relates to the idea of compensation. According to the decree, you can eliminate or transform a forest area if you are able to compensate. You can do it through reforestation activities, which include a large variety of projects and services (e.g. a new road), independently of their different and uncertain effects. But, even worse, you can economically compensate the loss, whether allowed from the Region, simply paying an amount of money that will be collected into a forest fund.

The management of forest inventories

There is also a lot of uncertainty about who is going to manage forest inventories. In the past it was a task of the State Forestry Corps but now the Corp has merged with the police force and there’s no clarity about who is going to be charged with the management in the future. The decree covers this issue only superficially and no dispositions ensure any scientific methodology, accuracy and truthfulness.

Which is the “real” main objective of the policy?

Finally, there is also a sort of discrepancy related to the main objective of the policy. The writers of the decree wanted to promote an active management of the forest and enhance of the production of wood material. The availability of wood may be a good news for the sector of woodworking in Italy. The problem is that there is not any production structure on the territory. That means that the real objective of the decree is to provide the electricity producers with biomass! In fact, in the past, they have been authorized and established without considering the availability of raw material.

These are only few points among the many issues raised after the approval of the decree. Although a comprehensive legislation over the topic had been necessary for a very long time the result is not so satisfactory as expected. There are many problems in the text of the law and the norm is superficial and not specific enough in many points. Let’s wait and see how things will evolve in the close future.

 

Agrisource : an Open-Innovation Platform for Climate-Smart Agriculture

With 10% of the world facing food and water scarcity, any viable solution to meet the challenge of global food production must extend beyond field-level problems and encompass a wider, science-based approach.

The main practical problems encountered across the entire seed-to-shelf spectrum are:

–          lack of communication and transparency between the players of agriculture

–          needs for advice, knowledge and actions

–          need of better life cycle evaluations for the value chain.

These problems have also been strengthened in the context of deep climate change.

How to solve the problem?

Agrisource aims at bringing together all actors (businesses, institutions, associations, farmers…), stimulate debates on innovative technologies and technics, and act as a catalyst for new local or international projects. It is a mine of resources for those who seek information, and a network hub for those who come with an idea.

In order to do that, an Open Innovation Platform has been created for the purpose of encouraging a more efficient innovation into the agricultural sector by sharing best practises, experiences, knowledge and information. That may also be seen as a place where to spread and discuss strategies regarding both the reduction of GHGs emissions and the adaptation of the agricultural practises to climate change. At the same time, value chain players may also influence each other in the decision making processes and, finally, share the risks of changing food systems.

Data are collected using specific sensors and intelligent data collection devices, combined with hundreds of other data inputs, including satellite and drone imagery. Multi source data are used to monitor the full spectrum of agricultural and operational activity and solve specific agriculture and business problems (such as increasing brix in grape and sugar cane crops, optimizing irrigation scheduling for water sustainability). In this way, both yield and revenue are increased by improving crop health, food quality and safety, but also wages and profitability.

These data are then combined with advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning. Armed with this information, that provide a full range of economic, climate, infrastructure, and operational insights, officials in government or enterprise farm management teams can optimize water, electricity, nutrient, chemical, and fuel usage and make more informed forecasting and investment decisions in order to maximise the final output.

AgriSource is the Europe’s first open innovation platform for climate-smart agriculture, operating with the support of the CSA Regional Boosters, an original initiative from the European Climate-KIC, that focuses on CSA solutions on specific business areas.

The platform is still young and launching and there’s a lot to do to make it completely intuitive and efficient. The operating team from the INRA, the CIRAD, and the startup eKoal – as the lead developer, Marc Nougier claims in an interview for Daily Planet – is facing the challenges of now spreading the use of AgriSource by all kinds of users and in order to do that, the first step required is that users subscribe, contribute, bring their input… and their feedback on things that can be improved.

Ecomondo 2017: an imperative meeting for the Green & Circular Economy

Last week (from 7 to 10 of November) and for the 21st time, the international expo Ecomondo has gathered in Rimini representatives of all the sectors involved in environmental issues: from waste management to renewable energies, passing through energy recovery, online networks, efficiency, sustainable development pathing…

With an estimated assistance of over 100.000 visitors and more than 1.200 exhibitors, Ecomondo has proved itself one more time as the most relevant event for the green economy in the whole Mediterranean area. This year’s edition has focused on the importance of circular economy, a matter of capital importance in Italy specially since the past July 12th, when the Ministers of the Environment (Gian Luca Galletti) and Economic Development (Carlos Calenda) introduced in the next Italian National Strategy for Sustainable Development (created in order to meet the Agenda 2030 goals) the following paragraph:

“A new industrial policy aimed at sustainability and innovation capable of increasing the competitiveness of Italian products and manufacturing.”

Precisely, Minister Galletti has been present in the inauguration of this year, assisting the exposition of the “Stati Generali della Green Economy” (General State of the Green Economy), organized by the Consiglio Nazionale della Green Economy in collaboration with the Fondazione per lo Sviluppo Sostenibile.

At the same time, the part dedicated to the energy sector and efficiency improvements through technology keeps growing together with Ecomondo and for the 11th year has opened its doors as a correlated but independent event, under the name Key Energy, which comprehends several subgroups: for instance, Key Efficiency is dedicated to a smart use of the resources connected with technologic improvements. We could also find Key Wind, which dealt with the eolic energy with the collaboration of ANEV (Associazione Nazionale Energia del Vento), Key Storage, focused on different procedures that allow more efficient ways of storing energy, and from this very year Key Solar, dedicated to solar and photovoltaic technologies.

In the words of Mr. Galletti “Ecomondo is not anymore the expo of the environment, but the top event of Italian economy. It’s grown along years, until becoming one of the most important fairs connected with the economy, not only green”.

Further information about Ecomondo: http://en.ecomondo.com/

Key energy: http://www.keyenergy.it/

“Changes are happening so rapidly regulators are not managing to catch up”

As an interdisciplinary academic with background in management, environmental sciences and energy engineering, Dr. Konstantinos Chalvatzis is a trust-worthy voice in the renewable energy studies. He is an associate Professor in Business and Climate Change at Norwich Business School, and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Besides, he holds lectures at the University of Maryland and Università di Bologna as an adjunct professor. We have had the chance to talk with him during his last stay on Italy about the energy industry, labour market and education.

What do you consider to be the main brakes to the renewable energy industry?

So the main hindering things to having proper growth in the sector, I think, are old business models, old mentalities over what is profitable in the sector. Essentially, we have old utilities trying to control all the market because they think this is the only way they can make money.

At the same time you have things like, for example, new technologies in the renewable energy sector, busting myths that we used to live with for 10-20 years now. We’ve been growing up with renewables along the side; saying that there is a limit to the renewables you can have (30% in any possible grid). Because that is a limit you can possibly compensate with fossil fuel if your wind stops blowing for example. If there is a sudden reduction of wind energy supply, we were always told you need to have enough gas supply in the system to be able to ramp up your gas turbine and catch up with that. So, there were things like that which really shaped our understanding of what is possible and what could have happened.

Also, because things have been changing so rapidly in this domain I don’t think regulators are managing to catch up. In one year you can have different technologies that a year ago there would not be consider as possible. Energy storage five years ago was seen as an alien thing. Today it is possible. Suddenly that changes market dynamics, the possibilities; it changes the amount of renewables you can compensate for in a system. Price is the other relevant factor. The average person has been totally infestated with the idea that renewables are expensive energy sources. People don’t understand that they’re the cheapest thing we have! Today prices of solar panels are twelve times lower than in 2009. Twelve times down! I don’t think anybody is catching up with this. I don’t thing regulators understand this is actually going on, it’s not expensive anymore, and technical barriers are coming down.

I’m not going to say that they’ll disappear, of course they won’t. But technical barriers are much easier to handle with than they were few years ago. At the same time utilities have to catch up, they have to start realising that that’s not the only business model, if they get stuck with this they will probably manage through collusion with regulators to slow down growth of renewable, but at some point they will bankrupt; at some point if they don’t innovate, if they don’t change how they play the game, they would just not exist, they would be irrelevant.

 

Decarbonise Italy, at what cost?

The new National Energy Strategy for Italy, presented last week by the government, has set new targets that will transform the Italian energy sector, which will reduce the gaps with the other EU countries.

At 2015, renewable energies accounted for 23% of national energy mix, which still sees natural gas accounting for a large share, 40% and coal for 15%.  Estimates showing that our country is on the right track, however, by 2025-30 many challenges are at the door.

It has been estimated that the transition to a coal free energy will have a social cost of roughly 2.7 billion euros; most of the efforts, then, will focus on improving of energy-mix and the performances in terms of efficiency. Indeed, the efficiency target of 9 Mtep requires a radical shifts of by Italian authorities from the industry sector to transports and the residential one. The former, will be renewed with a subsides scheme to make less polluting car-models more competitive. The latter, instead, will experience a reform of the eco-bonus, to favour further developments in the energy efficiency of Italians homes,  mimicking the German KfW model.

Regarding the de-carbonisation of our energy sources, things are not quiete simple. By 2025-2030 renewables should account for 50% and the Italian government aims at reducing the coal capacity by GW, which means shutting down of the whole active plants, and this ambitious transition we well know does not come at zero-cost. However, the main obstacle hampering Italian plans is still here: energy imports. To give you a brief insight, just Italy imports around 76% of its energy resources, one of the biggest importer among OCSE, and at the same time is the fourth biggest energy consumer in Europe – 169 million of Mtep in 2016.

Although, we have largely achieved the 2020 EU targets for renewable energy and the Italian photovoltaic energy production is the largest in the world, accounting for 8% of the total energy output.

So what shall we do next?

According to Italian Minister of Economic Development, Italy must be able to balance the high goals set with investments and infrastructures in other sources than renewables, with a particular consideration on natural gas and thermo-electric.

The energy-challenge is mandatory for Italy, which urgently needs competitive prices for the manufacture sector, as our firms may pay up to 45% more compared to the European average.

Source: Il Sole24Ore, May 11 2017.

Good news for biodiversity

After the Industrial Revolution, by exploiting the environmental resources more than in any comparable period of human history, humans have changed ecosystems irreversibly, thus causing an alarming number of extinctions. Indeed, in regard to biodiversity loss, it has been calculated that the rate of known extinction in the XX century was from 50 to 500 times greater than the normal one. This is one of the most important environmental problems nowadays.

Nevertheless, there are several organizations, governments or individuals that actively work on this problem. A famous and emblematic example of this is the case of Douglas Tompkins, the American businessman that co-founded “The North Face” and “Esprit”. He was not only a normal businessman; he has been also an environmental activist for several decades. Sadly, he died in December 2015 as a consequence of a kayak accident, but his second wife is keeping working for the environmental cause in his name. In these days, she signed an agreement with the Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, but this is something we have never seen before. This agreement, which represents the largest land donation from a private person to a state, gives Chile 400.000 hectares to be destined for the creation of five new natural parks and aims to protect biodiversity. Why did Tompkins own all this land? He bought it during his life exactly for this reason: protect biodiversity and save ecosystems from human destruction. These natural parks, together with the parks that already exist, will allow the achievement of an incredible result: 20% of the whole Chile will be protected area.

This stunning goal has been reached thanks to the actions of a man who really understood the seriousness of the problem of biodiversity loss and therefore invested part of his earnings to make the world a better place, showing that such altruistic actions are possible. This donation, as well as having the obvious direct effect of protecting biodiversity, could serve as an example which others can take inspiration from. It represents, therefore, a little step towards sustainability. Thank you Douglas!

Federico Pinato